Go Back and Read Your Past Work — Here’s How to Do It

I’ll admit it, in my short time on this planet, I have created a lot of content — content that I have little interest going back and enjoying. While one reason can be that I have way too much to do now: creating new material and reading, watching, and listening to other (more talented) people’s work; another more restraining reason is that I’m not convinced that it’ll be enjoyable. 

I believe that anything I create creatively, I make for myself, I’m the first audience member. That is how I pick my creative projects. I want my investment in time to pay off down the line. I create it with the intention that one day in the future I can enjoy it again as an audience member who has lost all connection with the initial creation process. 

While that is my encouragement to put in the time and effort — blood, sweat, and tears — I don’t know when it is safe to return to that piece of work. I worry that I’ll cringe. I worry that I’ll get critical. I’ll worry that I will see all the mistakes that I’ve made before and become unable to let go. Yet, I want to look back and see how far I’ve come. I am pulled and tugged by how I want to approach my corpus of old work. 

I start to wonder what successful creators and artists approach this aspect of their work, the revisiting phase. 

The Producer: Don’t Treat It Like A Job 

Perhaps the most famous incident of an artist claiming to have not seen his own work is Johnny Depp in an interview with David Letterman. 

Johnny Depp: In a way, once my job is done on the film it is really none of my business. […] I stay as far away as I possibly can. If I can I try to stay in a profoundest state of ignorant as possible. […] I just don’t like watching myself. I prefer the experience — I mean, making the film is great. The process is all fine, but then… he’s up there. You know what I mean?  

To me, there is a sense of freedom to that: to be able to create without the need to critique his work. As a copywriter, I can personally relate to that. I have a workman’s mentality to a lot of stuff I create. I don’t write a blog post to necessary go back and enjoy while sipping mai tai on a beach. I write it. I got paid for it. My obligation is done. Obligations are not enjoyments, and if you see your work as such… you might lack the fulfillment in your craft that can propel you forward. 

Perhaps that’s why some may think that Depp’s work today is derivative of his best from the past. If you start treating your creations as simply work, then yes, there is never a personal reason to go back and watch it. Then again, you should think about the work you are picking. 

The Fan: Make it for Yourself First 

Then on the other side of the spectrum is Samuel L. Jackson. There is a reason that Jackson is in so many fantastic movies, it’s because he has a brilliant philosophy for his work. 

In an interview with GQ magazines, Samuel L. Jackson said, “I like watching myself in movies….if I am channel surfing and I pass a movie that I’m in, I’m watching it no matter what. I have a drawer of nothing but my DVDs, so if nothing else, I can just go in and pull one out and put it in.”

When asked why some actors don’t enjoy watching themselves, he responded, “That’s bullshit! Actors that say, “I can’t stand to watch myself”, well if you can’t stand to watch yourself then why the f*** do you expect someone to pay $13.50 to watch you?”

Like chefs who cook food for others, that they would not eat themselves, an artist who is unable to enjoy their work should be viewed with slight suspicion. As if to say, “Oh, your work isn’t even good enough for you?” 

The Critic: Identify Errors

Sometimes you look back at your work and all you can see is the mistakes you’ve made. And in some pieces, the errors stand out more clearly than others. However, it’s sometimes better to bite the bullet, watch what you’ve made, and analyze why you dislike it. 

In a 2011 interview with Time Out, Lady Gaga speaks about her current relationship with her hit Telephone: “I hate ‘Telephone.’ Is that terrible to say? It’s the song I have the most difficult time listening to. I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video, I hate it so much. Beyonce and I are great together, but there are so many ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more.”

Trust in your taste. If you don’t feel the way Samuel L. Jackson does when reading, watching, or listening to your own work, ask yourself what you dislike about it. If you are blatantly ignorant, you may never learn to improve. And if it is more than just a paycheque for you, like it clearly is for Lady Gaga, then you must analyze the errors and do better next time. 

The Exhausted: Take A Long Break From It 

If the idea of consuming your old work is causing you to cringe, it might simply be the fact that you haven’t had enough distance from it yet. 

Talking to Rolling Stone back in 1993, Kurt Cobain stated: “It’s almost an embarrassment to play [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”]. Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains… I can barely, especially on a bad night, get through ‘Teen Spirit.’ I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away.”

Like eating the same meal over and over again, creating content or performing can feel repetitive. As a filmmaker, after spending so many hours in the editing room watching the same scenes over and over again, getting it just right. Once it is completed, the last thing you would want to do is sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch the movie from beginning to end. The same goes with a writer writing and a singer singing. 

If you don’t take the time to put that piece aside, hide it in the dark, then you will feel fatigued from it. Your creation might be as delicious as chocolate, but if all you’ve been eating is chocolate for the past three months, maybe a piece of celery is what you need to cleanse the palate.   

The Historian: Treat Your Old Work As Snapshots of Your Life 

When you create something, you create in the present. You put your current emotional state into it. You choose words and form sentences in the way you currently know how. You tell stories and evoke emotions that relate to the person you are. When you look back on it, you are certain to see the changes, not only within the work but in yourself as an older writer. 

“It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed,” writer, George Saunders tells New York Times about revisiting his collection of short stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. “Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.” 

Like looking at an old photograph of yourself, for no other reason, revisiting your older work is a powerful way to understand the person you once were. The thing this exercise can achieve where simply looking at a picture of yourself can’t is that a picture can only show you what’s on the surface, but a piece of writing can show you want is underneath it all. 

At this time, I am debating with reading some of the work I have written, that I have worked so hard on: mainly those that I have published on Amazon. They haunt me in a way… but I think I might crack it open soon and see all the problems I made, my ability to entertain myself, and the younger man who was simply trying to express himself. 

If you found this article helpful, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.

Don’t be a brand; be brand new

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Why your personal brand may be limiting

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. May 4, 2016

At a young age, we created an identity for ourselves. This identity follows us like a shadow throughout our academic, professional, and even romantic endeavours. We become this persona of what people see us as, and we measure ourselves by our accomplishments within that scope.

While establishing a personal brand for yourself may be useful if you are marketing your services to employers, I don’t believe it should be a strict guideline for you to live by. As human beings, we should be allowed to have the freedom to explore. This exploration nurtures growth, a type of metamorphosis that can only happen when new experiences are injected into our lives. You cannot experience anything new if you live your life as a brand.

Let’s say you love rap music. It’s your thing. It’s your brand. Everyday you wear your headphones and you listen to rap. People know you for that and you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to anything else. That sounds like a pretty limiting life, doesn’t it?

It’s important for us to put aside our preconceptions once in awhile and be open-minded. Your brand shouldn’t be rap music; it should be music or art. While you can specialize in rap, you will have a more diversified understanding of music if you listen to the whole range. Rap can be your passion, but if you want your brand to grow and mature—and not just be a pretentious shadow that throws shade at other people who don’t like what you like—you have to broaden your horizons and explore.

It’s easy to establish a brand for yourself and live within those boundaries. People expect you to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and act a certain way. We like when things are predictable. After all, that is why McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart are so popular: you know what to expect. However, unlike billion-dollar corporations, we as human beings need to have the flexibility to shift gears without upsetting the shareholders.

You are not a brand. You are a person. You might have followers, you might have employers, and you might have friends that will expect you to behave in a way that fits their branding, and that’s fine. You can wear a persona like a uniform. You can be professional and friendly, but you must also be pushing yourself beyond those that are already around you. While those within your vicinity will influence and support you, they also act as a black hole that is pulling you deeper and deeper into a character that is merely their expectation of you. Don’t be that character. Don’t be a brand.

When you wake up tomorrow, be someone who dares to do something different.

Chinese creative constructions must be within constraints

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Does the world need more strange buildings?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Mar 2, 2016

When it comes to art, there is nothing more impressive than a city that sparks imagination with its façade while also facilitating practicality. There are countless unique buildings of great significance in the world that we can identify in a flash: the Pentagon, the Burj Khalifa, and the Petronas Towers, for example. These aren’t monuments like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, these are functioning buildings where people work and live everyday. So what’s wrong with making them look interesting?

On February 21, China’s State Council announced that there would be stricter guidelines for urban planning. What does that mean? Well, in the past few decades, China has been erecting odd buildings all across the country, many without any links to cultural heritage or functionality. In another word, China was making buildings weird for the sake of being weird. Buildings shaped like pants, coins, and even a pile of debris can be found in China.

Now, I love art. I don’t always understand it, but I like the fact that it exists. I live in a city full of art instalations that serve no purpose but to take up a spot where a bench or a garbage bin could have been. But it gets people talking, so that is a positive.

However, I always question the monetary value of a piece of art. I know artists need to get paid and all that, but when the money is coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, there better be a damn good reason for the art. China, of course, is now faced with the same predicament. They want to construct interesting buildings, but when the production to make them “original” is costing more than the façades are worth, then the projects need to stop.

A building at its most basic is a box. No matter how interesting a building is, once you are inside, you are in a box. The world would be a pretty awful place if all the boxes looked the same. Take a look at suburban America, where every house is constructed from the same blueprint. That is something we must avoid at any cost… even if the cost is saving money.

Economically, keeping buildings cube-shaped makes sense. It saves room, and in a world with limited space, that’s important. But we need landmarks. Humanity is built upon landmarks; that is why we have the Great Wonders of the World. But greatness is not just about being strange or impressive, it’s backed with history.

It doesn’t matter how the world sees it, it matters for the people who walk in and out of those buildings every day. Yes, tourists will come and go. They’ll snap pictures, and they’ll share the image with people all around the world. Yet, for the people who work and live there, buildings need to be a structure of pride. We spend so many hours of our lives in buildings. Let’s create ones that aren’t just weird, let’s create ones we are proud of. And pride is worth paying a premium for.

The ‘Blurred Lines’ of artistic plagiarism

Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke. Image via zenfs.com

We are reaching the end of artistic originality

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 16, 2015

There is an old saying by Pablo Picasso that I take to heart every time I work on a creative project: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” While it might sound like Picasso is supporting the notion of plagiarism, I actually believe he is condoning something different; he is saying that great artists are able to take ownership of their creation, which is inspired by a pre-existing work. But isn’t that what Robin Thicke did with the hit single “Blurred Lines”?

After listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” from 1977, I am disappointed that the quote I have lived by—that Picasso probably stole from someone he overheard at a bar—had no support in the court of law. It might have seemed like millionaires arguing for a slice of a pie baked from a familiar recipe, but the event that took place will now open the door for many more lawsuits to come.

It’s clear “Got to Give it Up” and “Blurred Lines” share similar beats, but the two songs are not the same. The two songs do not have the same lyrics, the same theme, or the same audience. How many dance clubs are playing Gaye? With each passing generation, artists draw inspiration from works from the past. That is how creativity functions. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. Artists take pieces from here and there and combine them. Can a cinematographer copyright a camera move? Can a painter copyright the scenery they painted? Can a musician copyright a series of musical notes?

More recently, Sam Smith was on the radar for his song “Stay With Me,” which to many sounding suspiciously similar to a slower version of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” In this case, Smith accepted a settlement and credited Petty as a co-writer. The not-so-petty Petty will now receive a portion of the money for “Stay With Me” and this may be a common trend for the future. Artists will be credited for works which merely influenced, or that coincidence caused the two to clash.

There is more music than there is time to enjoy it. Because of this, notes, rhythm, and melody will be replicated in some form. We call it plagiarism and perhaps it is. But the same way we don’t copy and paste words from Wikipedia, musicians don’t crop and paste music from iTunes. You take the content and you make it your own.

I still believe in the idea that great artists steal, because the artists today will always be standing on the shoulders of giants that preceded them. What’s different now is the system protecting those giants. We as artists need to craft our creative work better so that it doesn’t resemble that from the past. More than ever, we need to make our work our own. If that means adding a banjo, so be it. If that means a sitar, well damn it, play that sitar. If that means more cowbells, well, it’s about time we cure that insatiable thirst for cowbells already. Then we wait for someone else to copy us.

Speaking of the horny devil

Opinions_Dick devilWhy provocative art is healthy for the city

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Sept. 16, 2014

On September 10, Vancouver commuters travelling past Main and VCC Clark got a chance to admire the newly erected statue of the Prince of Darkness—briefly. While some found good humour in the statue, others clearly had penis envy after seeing the nonchalant exposure of the red devil. With one hand up giving some weird Spiderman web-slinging symbol and the other one placed suggestively close to the large member, it’s not surprising that many people were upset and the statue was removed. However, a petition to “Save the Devil!” is now surfacing online and the number of supporters has passed 666 in less that 24 hours.

Phallic and nude monuments and statues have been around since the dawn of man. From the statue of David to the world-famous Haesindang Park in South Korea, the highly touted male appendage had been an inspiration for artists for generations. Nevertheless, Vancouver has once again shown itself to be a prudish, stuffy group with a snobby belief that in order to be a “world-class city,” the only monuments worth presenting are those of animals and of Douglas Coupland’s head with gum all over it. If Gum Head is art, then surely Horny Devil—the name I’m giving it in this article—is art too. What’s the difference?

Let’s be honest, there are much more pertinent things to worry about than those blasted devil-worshippers corrupting our children. If a devil statue with a large penis is going to upset you on your way to and from work, maybe it’s time to ask yourself why. Art is supposed to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” but most artwork around the city is so forgettable that it might as well be fire hydrants, garbage cans, or those mystery grey boxes painted with foliage.

When seeing something like the Horny Devil, I get excited—no, not in that way. I feel as though some cultural progression is happening. We get so focussed on what we have to do on a daily basis that we forget what we are: horny, sinful animals. The devil statue reminds us that we are all the same on the inside.

I, for one, would much rather look at the devil than at an empty podium. What the hell is that podium used for anyway? What is that little public square used for? I don’t know, but I guess freedom of expression is not one of them.

I applaud the person or group that constructed the Horny Devil. After all, the city is full of CEOs and thought leaders, but we need more artistic rebels. We need people to break us from our status quo, refresh our memory, and allow us—as a collective—to grow. The Horny Devil does not have to be a display of immaturity, but the general reaction is a perfect example that we, as a city, are not mature enough to handle it for what it is. The Horny Devil is a reflection of ourselves and we are not ready to embrace it yet.

Art attack

 Bad-Artist

Judge the art, not the artist

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in the Other Press. Oct. 2013

I always wonder what Hitler would have created if he had made it into that art school.

All throughout history, bad people have created brilliant artwork. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between artistic ability and common courtesy. Musicians, painters, filmmakers, and all other artists are just average people, and people are complicated creatures. Sure, we might condemn a person for an unforgivable act, but is it right to boycott or banish the art they produced? Are we horrible people for enjoying the work of monsters? Shouldn’t the work of art have a life of its own?

In modern times, there are several despicable individuals who have created such a substantial body of work that we cannot help but admire. The first that comes to mind is Kanye West. Although I don’t know the man, I do know his work and his reputation. His arrogant persona often makes entertainment headlines and causes a stir. I for one don’t care how he behaves or what he does, as long as he continues creating evocative and enjoyable music. His 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of my favourite albums, and I couldn’t imagine it without the hit single “Runaway, where Kanye acknowledges the fact that he is a douche-bag.

In 1977, Roman Polanski, director of classic films including Chinatown andRosemary’s Baby, was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl. Fleeing from America to France to avoid imprisonment, Polanski went on to direct some of the most thought-provoking films of the past three decades. The Pianist, which received theatrical release in 2002, still remains one of my favourite World War II movies. Polanski was detained when he tried to attend the Zurich Film Festival in 2009, where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award for his work.

Anti-Semitism and racism have been the muses of many artists throughout history. From the works of Joseph Goebbels to TS Eliot to DW Griffith, all have had an impact on history—despite their bruised reputations.

Goebbels developed some of World War II’s most appalling and brilliant pieces of cinema, all of which were used in some form or another as wartime propaganda. He was therefore known as one of the most influential people during the Third Reich.

Many consider TS Eliot to be one of the greatest poets of all time, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t find inspiration from his prejudice. In a piece entitled “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Eliot uses a classic stereotype to compare the Jewish people with vermin: “The rats are underneath the piles. The Jew is underneath the lot. Money in furs.”

My last example is DW Griffith, who was best known for directing American masterpieces The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. The silent films made in 1915 and 1916 told the stories of the American Civil War, but through the eyes of Griffith’s racist ideals. Although the Old South bias stained the cinematic experience, the movie led the way in filmmaking and storytelling innovation and changed cinema for the better.

It seems as though art is a lawless occupation, where quality entertainment offers immunity. In a world where any other professional would lose their job, an artist can survive, because creating art is akin to creating life—the art lives on honestly, while the hateful person dies shamefully.